Politicians eye rise of independents More than 16,000 in county unaffiliated

112% jump since '86

'Nasty politics' are turnoff

Major parties court nonpartisan group for swing votes

September 23, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,Howard County Board of Elections Pub Date: 9/23/96SUN STAFF

Susan Brzozowski is a former Democrat who cares about education, taxes and national defense. Anthony Testa is a former Republican who cares about the economy, crime and illegalizing abortion.

What do the two Howard County residents have in common? A deep frustration with politicians and the traditional parties that produce them.

That may be the sole unifying force for Howard County's unaligned voters -- a potent, unpredictable and fast-growing group that local party leaders court heavily in the months leading to general elections and increasingly worry about the rest of the time.

"It's kind of spooky," says Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican and chairman of the Howard County Council. "It's the cynicism of the electorate registered right there on paper."

In the past decade, the number of Howard independents -- meaning those who decline to register with any party -- has more than doubled, a growth rate beyond even what the surging Republicans have managed in that time.

More than 16,000 county voters, about 14 percent of the electorate, are registered as independents. And in an average month these days, more than a quarter of newly registered voters are declining party affiliation.

This poses new challenges for the two major political parties, which increasingly must reach independent voters, both to build their ranks and to win close elections.

The story is the same around the state -- where 11 percent of voters now are registered as independents. Independents are growing nationally, too.

"Out of frustration, I'm just going to vote for somebody else. I just don't know who that somebody else is," says Testa, a 50-year-old Elkridge resident who works on computers at a bank. "I haven't been satisfied with anyone who's been running for a long time."

Brzozowski, a 43-year-old former teacher in Ellicott City, sounds a similar theme. "I just feel [President] Clinton is so dishonest. But I guess my opinions of politicians are more and more that way," she says. "It's disheartening."

The irony here is that, although independent voters are less likely to vote in elections, their votes can be vital to victory.

Because the loyalists of each party vote predictably, it is the unloyal ones -- independents or others with weak party affiliations -- who often provide the margins of victory in close races.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties in Howard are paying close attention to the rise of independent voters.

In the spring primary race for two Howard Circuit Court judgeships, for example, the campaigns did not focus on independents because they couldn't vote in the primary. Now as November's general election approaches, both campaigns need their support.

"You can't ignore 15 percent of the electorate," says Carol

Arscott, a consultant for the two sitting judges, Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton. "You've got to assume everyone will go vote."

In the presidential and local congressional races, Howard Democrats last week began using their phone banks to target independents and others who didn't vote in the primary election. In the 1992 presidential election, local Democrats say they made about 10,000 such calls.

"They're the swing voters," says Jim Kraft, president of the Columbia Democratic Club. "They're the people we have to get the message to."

For strategists, the problem with independents is that nobody knows precisely who they are, what issues matter to them and why they vote the way they do. About all that's known for sure is that they do vote, though nationally and here in somewhat smaller numbers than party loyalists.

In Howard County, where voter turnout usually is very high, about 85 percent of registered voters went to the polls in recent presidential elections. Turnout among independents trailed by just a few percentage points.

"They're sort of a wild card," says Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, a polling group based in Columbia. "We really don't know what they are yet."

Coker has some theories: Many of the independents, he says, are nonvoters registered through little initiative of their own under the federal "motor voter" law.

The law, which went into effect last year, allows people to easily register to vote when they get driver's licenses or apply for government assistance.

Leaders of both parties complain that no one tells these voters that by registering as independents, they forfeit their right to vote in primary elections, which often are more hotly contested than general elections in Maryland.

Coker also says a large number of independents are probably young -- under 35 years old -- and not as interested in politics as they will be after starting families and buying homes.

Nevertheless, since 1952, independents have sided with the winning candidate in every presidential election but one, says Phil Henderson, a political science professor at Catholic University in Washington and a Columbia resident.

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